Asian History · history

The Controversial Empress Wu

I have yet to figure out this blogs main theme, but I am looking to research what I am most interested in (European medieval/renaissance/baroque history and women’s history), but I found the Empress Wu so fascinating I had to post this blurb that I wrote about a month ago. I hope you all will enjoy!

I was listening to a podcast this month and became fascinated with Empress Wu, the only female ruler of China. She was born during the Tang dynasty and lived from 624-705. This is a very early period and it surprised me how such an ambitious woman could become the sole ruler of China and remain the only one for centuries. Wu Zetian had a very interesting life and broke many of the social norms for women during her day, but she is also remembered for her corruptness and ruthlessness when she did take power.

As a side note, many of the ruthless acts she is remembered for may have been slander (as she made many enemies), but it is hard to know for sure since the sources are so sparse. Wu Zetian would do what was necessary to achieve what she wanted.

Wu Zetian was born to a minor aristocratic family and through this position had some access to becoming noticed by the imperial court. During this period in China the highest position and really the only access to power would have been as a concubine in the imperial court. There was a strict hierarchy in this system with the empress being at the top, four consort titles, and then nine concubine titles. At the age of fourteen Wu Zetian was chosen as fifth rank-consort to Emperor Taizong (second of Tang Dynasty) The emperor was attracted to her “beauty, intelligence, and spirit.” There is a story that was told in the Lee article and on the “Stuff you Missed in History Class” podcast that I find interesting and reveals a lot about Wu Zetian. The Emperor Taizong asked his concubines advice on how to handle a wild horse that no one could control and Wu replied, “I can control him [the horse], but I shall need three things: first, an iron whip; second, an iron mace; and third, a dagger. If the iron whip does not bring him to obedience I will use the iron mace to beat his head, and if that does not bring him to obedience I will use the dagger and cut his throat.” You can see where her tough reputation comes from. Apparently, the emperor was so charmed that he employed Wu as his personal secretary where she gained experience working with government documents and learning political skills.

After emperor Taizong’s death all the consorts were to become Buddhist nuns. There they were to shave their heads and be cut off from the rest of the world for the remainder of their life. This honestly sounds unfair, but it was better than other instances were consorts were actually buried alive with the emperor they served. Usually, women never left these convents but Wu was different. The previous emperor’s son (Gaozong) would come and pay regular visits to Wu under the guise of paying his respects to his father. Obviously, a woman like Wu Zetian during this restrictive period of time would use this obvious attraction in order to get back into the imperial palace and obtain a seat of power. It worked and Gaozong brought her back to court as second-rank concubine. She needed to bear a son in order to obtain the status she wanted and she did. She bore Emperor Gaozong four sons. But, this is where the story shows where Wu’s reputation comes from.

Empress Wang still stood in her way for the highest position. It is reported that Wu found an opportunity for this by using her own newborn daughter. It is said that Wu had Empress Wang watch the child and afterword had her own daughter killed in order to blame the murder on Wang. Gaozong fell for it and the Empress Wang was put to death. Again, it is hard to tell what is true and what is slander being that Wu Zeitan’s story is so long ago and the sources are sketchy.

After this event Wu became Empress and shared Imperial power equally with her emperor. After Gaozong’s death, Wu essentially ruled through her sons using them as puppets (she even replaced the eldest son with the youngest in order to maintain this power). She was efficient at removing political opponents and threats and formed an informant system. Jason Porath describes this as her “reign of terror” where she defeated uprisings and “systematically wiped out any and all claimants to the throne.” Apparently this involved destroying 15 family lines (all through executions, exaggerated charges, and forced suicides). Much of this came from comment boxes she set up for her citizens in which they could denounce anyone they wanted. In 690, Wu declared herself sole empress and declared a new dynasty, the Zhao Dynasty. She would rule for fifteen years as the only woman emperor in Chinese history.

Despite the ruthlessness and ambition described above, Empress Wu had a lot of achievements in her reign and her reign proved to be prosperous. The most important achievement of her reign was creating a system of examining candidates for government positions; this system was a standard to continue to build on all the way into the 20th century. It emphasized a candidate’s education and talent rather than what family they came from.  She was extremely popular with the common people due to her economic reforms which benefitted them. Wu kept peace, patronized Buddhism and promoted literature/art. Wu helped to publish a biography of famous women and changed the common practice for children to only mourn the father to including the mother as well. Again, despite her earlier actions, Empress Wu seemed to be very reasonable and took the criticism she received from her ministers very seriously. In the early 700s, Empress Wu actually abdicated in favor of her son and died soon after in peace. The Zhao Dynasty began and ended with Wu as her son resumed the Tang Dynasty. Wu was buried next to Emperor Gaozong. It is interesting to note that her grave marker was left blank while her husband’s was filled with his accomplishments during his reign. There are many are theories as to why that is. I have heard both that she wanted her marker to be that way and that the people did not want Empress Wu to be remembered due either to her reputation or just because she was a woman who held power.

I find Empress Wu to be very interesting. The only woman ruler in Chinese history took power in a very early time period (the late 600s and early 700s) and a period where women did not have many chances to become something. Wu saw the opportunity and did everything she could to reach a place where she could break through these gender barriers. Wu does have a reputation for being ruthless and violent towards her enemies, but it is hard to tell if this is true or slander. I feel it could be exaggerated and true at once. She would have had to do something to stop rivals (especially Empress Wang) in order to reach her top position, but would she have really killed her own daughter? Or did her daughter die of natural causes and she had a chance to use that accident? It goes to show that slander and villainizing often happened to women who took power. Anyway, I enjoyed learning more about Empress Wu’s story and I felt I wanted to share different facts I learned. I would love to continue reading up on Wu and the time period she lived in China.


Jason Porath-Rejected Princesses

Smithsonian Mag- The Demonization of Empress Wu

Yuen Ting Lee- Wu Zhao Ruler of Tang Dynasty China

Jonathan Clements, Wu: The Chinese Empress Who Schemed, Seduced, and Murdered Her Way to Become a Living God.

What You Missed in History Class Podcast- Did Empress Wu’s Reign Change China?

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